Compositing Comparison
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 12 (December 2003)

Compositing Comparison

There's a tendency to divide the compositing and special effects market into two segments consisting of high-end programs costing upwards of tens of thousands of dollars and low-end programs costing less than $5000. However, the newest generations of these "low-end" programs continue to blur the line between the two ends of the spectrum.

In fact, says Steve Kilisky, product manager of Adobe After Effects, "The difference between high end and low end is not about features at all." Instead, he says, the high-end systems are simply faster at performing the same functions than their desktop counterparts.

John Worthington, director of desktop software product management and marketing at Discreet agrees that speed is the primary differentiator. "With desktop compositing software, you can get results that rival the high-end systems, but it takes longer," he says. "If you're working on a deadline, that cuts down the amount of experimentation you can do. But if you're not on a deadline, the accessibility of the desktop programs gives you a great deal of freedom."

Given the richness of these programs, one couldn't begin to discuss all their features in a single article. Perhaps it is more efficient to take a look at some of the newest features the programs are bringing to market for the Windows platform, and at how the vendors are trying to position themselves relative to one another.

As the market leader in the desktop compositing space, Adobe After Effects is the package most other programs either compare themselves against or strive to complement. According to Kilisky, one of the biggest differences between After Effects and many of its competitors is that After Effects is more of a general-purpose tool designed for both visual effects and motion graphics creation. In contrast, he says, many of its competitors are more specialized on visual effects.

From a product strategy standpoint, Kilisky says Adobe's goal is to broaden the market by making After Effects more accessible to the growing number of people who can use video for communications. Doing that, he says, requires more than just offering a low price (the Standard Edition of Version 6.0 costs $699, and the Professional Edition costs $999). It also requires an easy-to-use interface and solid integration with other video editing and production tools, something Adobe has done particularly well with the introduction of its new Video Collection bundle. The Professional Edition of that bundled package is priced at just $1499 and includes After Effects, Premiere Pro, Encore DVD, and Photoshop.

As for After Effects 6.0 itself, which was introduced in July, Kilisky highlights three enhancements as being particularly important. The first is support for OpenGL, which helps users work more interactively with 3D graphics. The second is the new text engine, which enables users not only to be more creative in how they can animate text, but also to take in a Photoshop file and have the text remain fully editable. The third significant improvement is the addition of a number of novel visual effects capabilities, including a new motion tracker, a new rotoscoping engine, and new scripting support.

Discreet's combustion, at $999, is arguably the most direct competitor to Adobe After Effects. Indeed, when introducing combustion 3 in October, the company proudly promoted the quote from one user, Gary Davis of visualZ (Orlando, FL), who proclaimed, "Combustion 3 allows me to perform all the major functions of the entire Adobe Video Collection—I can edit, create vector artwork, paint, rotoscope, and composite all from within the same interface."

In its early days, combustion was used primarily in the film world because of the system's compatibility with Discreet's high-end flame and inferno systems. But according to Worthington, as the price of combustion dropped, it began to be used by more people in broadcast and corporate applications.

While some combustion users also implement After Effects, Worthington says even dual users will turn to combustion for such features as particles, vector paint, and motion tracking—all key strengths of combustion. In addition, he notes, combustion enables users to edit and animate Adobe Illustrator files.
With combustion 3, Discreet offers users a wealth of novel features ranging from a new Visual Expressions Browser to new vector-based painting and rotoscoping tools.

According to Worthington, one of the most important enhancements with the introduction of combustion 3 has been the addition of the Edit Operator, which allows users to edit and assemble clips within the application. "Because it's an operator," he says, "you can use it anywhere in the work space you need it. It facilitates the process of syncing video and motion graphics."

In addition, combustion 3 incorporates JavaScript-based expressions (which makes it easier to create complex animations without keyframing), as well as new customizable brushes and Flash output from the vector paint engine. The new version also adds the RE:Flex morpher/warper plug-ins from RE:Vision Effects to enable free-form, spline-based morphing and warping that's integrated into the application.

While eyeon Software's Digital Fusion 4, priced at $4995, could also be considered a direct competitor to After Effects, it's perhaps more accurate to say that it targets a different market. This is a program often used by high-end effects houses working in the feature-film industry, and in many cases it serves as the primary compositing and effects system on complex projects involving large numbers of layers.

According to Isaac Guenard, a product manager at eyeon Software, "Digital Fusion's scriptability, masking, and core architecture allow it to function as a compositing backbone and product management utility, plugged in directly to a facility's existing pipeline." For example, he says, Digital Fusion's node-based architecture lets users add hundreds of masks to multiple layers. "Node-based compositing has been the status quo for all the compositing systems that have dominated the extreme high end of the market," he says. "We are offering a node-based solution that is consistent with that paradigm for less than $5000."

Just recently, Guenard notes, Rainmaker Studios, a visual effects house based in Vancouver, British Columbia, used Digital Fusion to finish more than 350 effects shots for MGM's movie, Good Boy (see "Tongue-Wagging Effects," pg. 10). "A good chunk of those shots called for some 40 image sources, not to mention the effects on each node," he says. "Trying to manage 40 source layers, with effects on each layer in a timeline-based system would be nearly impossible, yet our schematic layout is designed to allow for such complicated effects."
Rainmaker, a visual effects house, created this image using eyeon's Digital Fusion. The bike and the Bison element were both shot on blue screen, then composited into the shot over the rural road background, and finally color corrected to get the final lo

Perhaps the program that's a little more comparable to After Effects, at least from a pricing standpoint, is eyeon's DFX+, a $995 to $2495 modular program that lets users add tools as needed. When configured with all the offered modules, DFX+ has much of Digital Fusion's functionality except that the color space is defined for television broadcast, whereas a full Digital Fusion seat offers color-space flexibility all the way up to 32-bit floating-point processing, which is common for feature-film effects.

Released to the market in September, Boris Red 3GL, priced at $1595, is the newest version of Boris FX's popular titling, compositing, and effects program. Although the company declines to characterize itself as a competitor to After Effects, noting that 20 percent of its users also are After Effects users, there's no denying that it offers many of the same kinds of tools found in After Effects.

One distinguishing characteristic of Boris Red 3GL is that it is primarily designed to be an integrated application, although it can operate as a stand-alone program. Boris FX works closely with the vendors of top nonlinear editing programs to integrate Boris Red directly within their software.

As a result, says Boris Yamnitsky, president of Boris FX, the program is targeted more at video editors than at compositors. "The ability of Boris Red 3GL and the rest of the product line to integrate directly into the host application," he says, "is Boris's greatest contribution to the editorial work flow."

With more than 300 new features, Boris Red 3GL clearly has taken a step forward, but perhaps the biggest advance is the result of the program's support of OpenGL. "By supporting OpenGL, we've made previewing of 3D essentially real-time," says Yamnitsky. "With OpenGL, users can bring 3D to titling and graphics directly inside their editing applications, whereas before they could only export to high-end compositing and effects systems." Other enhancements include the incorporation of customizable keyboard shortcuts, 2D and 3D animated charts, advanced title-animation tools, 40 new filters, and a variety of render optimizations.

According to Pinnacle Systems, most users of its $495 Commotion Pro 4 software also use After Effects, a fact that underscores the company's contention that the product complements rather than competes with After Effects' tool set. Used largely in postproduction environments, Commotion Pro's appeal is based primarily on its superior painting, rotoscoping, and motion-tracking capabilities.

Although Pinnacle hasn't introduced a new version of Commotion in nearly two years, the program continues to appeal to users with its RotoSplines capabilities that enable the creation of highly accurate mattes that animate over time. Customizable painting tools let users paint directly on the clip and composite windows and see the effects in real time. A Time Remapping tool allows users to speed up or slow down motion to maintain precise control over the timing of effects and clips. And grouping and browsing controls make it easy to manage composites and group multiple layers together.

Given the growing capabilities of all these desktop programs, it's now possible for almost anyone to create Hollywood-quality video. Still, few are suggesting these low-cost tools are ready to completely displace the need for the higher-end offerings. Even if improvements in computer processing power help diminish the speed differences between high-end and low-end systems, most concede there will always be users who will have a need for the very highest level of performance they can obtain—regardless of price.

For his part, eyeon's Guenard suggests that perhaps the two market segments shouldn't be defined in terms of software features or system speed at all, but in terms of the end product being produced. At the lower end of the market, he contends, the biggest need is for motion graphics and A/B compositing. After Effects is so popular, he says, because it does those things well.

The higher end of the market, he says, is characterized by complex projects requiring hundreds of layers. This segment of the market, he explains, "needs pipeline-based solutions. Here the need is for an application that will complement a facility with defined 2D and 3D departments that need to speak to each other and can handle very complicated effects upwards of 500 layers. Scripting, floating-point color depth, interactivity, and overall workflow are all very important to this market space."

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance writer who has covered video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years. He can be reached at